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Exploring Exoplanets with Universe in the Park

September 10, 2014

Whether you are young or old, indoors-y or outdoors-y, the idea of stargazing is tantalizing. So when the UW Astronomy Department’s Universe in the Park program (UitP) comes to town, there is cause for excitement. Every weekend during the summer, members of the department go to different state parks around Wisconsin—from nearby Devil’s Lake all the way to Dane County—and give outdoor lectures on different topics in astronomy. Members of the public are then invited to view the stars through the department’s high-powered portable telescope.

Attendee Margo Faulk takes her turn at the telescope

After receiving enthusiastic comments about UitP on the library’s Facebook page, I joined the department over Labor Day weekend at Governor Dodge State Park to witness the fun for myself.

This weekend’s lecture was on exoplanets. Graduate student Elijah Bernstein-Cooper presented the talk (with accompanying slideshow) while fellow grad student Stephen Pardy set up the telescope. Exoplanets are planets that orbit in the habitable zone of a star. “Habitable” in this case means that they could potentially support liquid water on the surface. Earth is an exoplanet, as is Mars, though its liquid water evaporated long ago.

When astronomers search for exoplanets, they are not just searching for exciting new planets to explore—they are looking for places that may support life. What topic could be more interesting? It’s science fiction made real. Even though attendance was slightly low due to the holiday weekend, there was an enthusiastic response to Bernstein-Cooper’s lecture, particularly from the younger members of the audience. The first two rows of the amphitheater were filled with kids hanging onto every word.

Elijah Bernstein-Cooper lectures a captive audience
UW grad student Elijah Bernstein-Cooper lectures a captive audience

By the time the lecture was over the sky was completely dark. It was a clear night, perfect for star-gazing. And there was quite a line for the telescope! A few lucky attendees at the front of the line got to see Mars and Saturn before a sudden mess of clouds thwarted the clear view. But everyone else still had the opportunity to see a set of binary stars (stars which appear to orbit one another). It was an amazing experience. Even though this telescope was still small enough to be transported, it offered the clearest view of the stars I have ever seen.

UW grad student Stephen Pardy sets up the telescope

The importance of communicating science news to the public cannot be overstated, especially at a major research university like the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Who knows—maybe one of the kids who attended this UitP will grow up to be astronomer herself. Maybe one of the adults was inspired to become an amateur stargazer. Or maybe everyone simply gained a better understanding of what research is happening in the field of astronomy and how scientific instruments like telescopes work. Judging by the number of people who lingered to look through the telescope over and over again, this was certainly the case.

For more information on exoplanets, see the following resources (all available at the Astronomy Library in Sterling Hall!)

Cole, George H.A. Wandering Stars: About Planets and Exo-Planets (An Introductory Notebook). Imperial College Press, 2006.

Jones, Barrie W. The Search for Life Continued: Planets Around Other Stars. Springer, 2008.

Kitchin, Chris. Exoplanets: Finding, Exploring and Understanding Alien Worlds. Springer, 2012.

Mason, John W., ed. Exoplanets: Detection, Formation, Properties, Habitability. Springer, 2008.

Mayor, Michel, and Pierre-Yves Frei. New Worlds in the Cosmos: The Discovery of Exoplanets. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Perryman, Michael. The Exoplanet Handbook. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Seager, Sara, ed. Exoplanets. University of Arizona Press, 2010.

See also:

“NASA’s Kepler Discovers First Earth-Size Planet In The ‘Habitable Zone’ of Another Star” http://www.nasa.gov/ames/kepler/nasas-kepler-discovers-first-earth-size-planet-in-the-habitable-zone-of-another-star/#.VA81SsJdUue

Universe in the Park brings scientific research out of the lab and into the state park. There are still a few weekends left in the 2014 season! To find out more, visit http://www.astro.wisc.edu/uitp/

Governor Dodge State Park-- home of Labor Day Weekend's Universe in the Park!
Governor Dodge State Park– home of Labor Day Weekend’s Universe in the Park!